Tom Foremski’s this-can’t-go-on wail reads as powerfully as a Martin Luther deconstruction of one of the central pillars of the public relations industry.
“I’ve been telling the PR industry for some time now that things cannot go along as they are,” Tom wrote, “business as usual while mainstream media goes to hell in a hand basket.”
There is no point, he says, in writing slabs of text in journalese, and sending them to journalists when the traditional newspaper industry is dying and the news landscape is undergoing a digital revolution whether it likes it or not, Tom argued.
He’s right. The future is the message being shaped as web content and as social media conversation that has to be two-way and authentic, fun and interesting. Public relations people, no, communications people need to realise this if they are to still be relevant.
But that’s not to say that the press release is dead overnight. It’ll be here but diminishing.
Twelve months ago at an LGComms event I pointed to Tom’s post in a presentation and explained why this was something people needed to know. For five years I’ve been pointing to rapid change from my very small corner of the digital allotment.
Other louder voices have seen what I’ve seen too.
Government director of communications Alex Aiken made a similar point although more forcefully in a speech to the PRCA conference reported by PR Week.
Ashley Brown, Coca Cola’s global director for social media and digital communications, recently talked about the wish to end not just the press release but the corporate website too.
“For the first time ever, our PR teams are being asked to think beyond a press release or beyond a toolkit or beyond a launch package. They had to think: ‘Wow, what is a two-minute really high quality video that someone would really want to share with the friends?’”
“We’re finally breaking the last connections to the corporate website. I think the corporate website is over. I think it’s dead. I think everyone needs to start thinking beyond it. How can you turn it into a media property and hopefully the age of press release pr is over as well.
“I’m on a mission. If there’s one thing I do it’s to kill the press release. We have a commitment to reduce the number of press releases by half by the end of this year. I want them gone entirely by 2015. That’s our goal.”
That’s fine for Coke. But how easy is it if you work somewhere else?
Actually, press release murder is a pretty tricky subject to raise amongst comms people. It’s akin to telling people the skills they’ve spent a career crafting are now not so important. It’s telling a room full of sailors to put down their reef knot and lore and learn how to service an outboard motor. PR people are often former journalists who have in any event spent years as juniors crafting the ability to write press releases. Every word is pored over and shaped by committee. That control gives power. To attack the use of the press release is to launch a personal attack on the career history of PR people.
In the UK, the Government Digital Service published a fascinating study - the half life of news – of more than 600 press releases on gov.uk that looked at the traffic they got. Many spike quickly then fade like digital chip paper.
But if the battle is to be won it’s probably not the revolutionary cry of ‘Die, press release!’ that will win in it. It’s not even a study of how effective the numbers are in getting a story across that will lead the victory, although that will be important. It’ll actually be you, me and the people you went to school with who vote with their feet and share the sharable content.
There is nothing so boring, I’ve heard it said, as the future of news debate amongst journalists because what they say will have no bearing whatsoever on what the outcome will be.
It’ll be things like Oreo’s mugging of the Superbowl with an image of a biscuit created on the spot and tweeted and Facebooked within minutes to take advantage of a powercut. It wasn’t the lavish TV ads that was talked about. It was the real time marketing team who made the sharable image and the 15,000 retweets and 20,000 likes it achieved.
What’s real time marketing? It’s people making content that capitalises on real time events. Look it up. You’ll need to know it.
All this is why I’m finding communications utterly fascinating right now.
And you have to ask yourself the question, if you are not thinking of what post-press release life looks like now, what will you be doing in five years?
Creative commons credits
Sorry, no gas http://flic.kr/p/7vtFzZ
Which is pretty much what we did with Commscamp the first unconference for communicators in and around local and central government.
Held at The Bond Company, a lovely converted warehouse in Birmingham’s creative quarter of Digbeth, we drew people from all over the country. It’s 135-capacity we could have sold four times over.
More than 170,000 saw the tweets on the day, a tweetreach survey revealed, and more than 500 joined in the debate on Twitter. More watching the sessions which were livestreamed.
People left the day fired with ideas with connections having been made with the unconference format allowing debate to flow over the tea, coffee and cake.
What is an unconference? It’s attendees deciding what gets talked about and voting with their feet to choose the break-out sessions they want. Want to crack a problem? Pitch a session and help run it yourself.
A revolutionary approach? Not really. It’s based on the success of sister events like UK Govcamp, localgovcamp, librarycamp and Hyper WM with many of them being staged in the highly networked city of Birmingham.
Why has there been such an explosion? Simple. A perfect storm of budget cuts, new technoplogu and people excited a little by the new and better things they can do with them.
A couple of years ago I talked to Home Office press officers.
“Why would I bother with a few thousand people on Twitter when the frontpage of the Sun gets read by two million?” one asked.
A few months later the riots struck and those organisations without a Twitter presence were hopelessly exposed.
I thought of that press officer when the streets burned.
But commscamp was far more than just geeks needing to understand how the web has changed.
It was also about the real human day-to-day problems of how not just to do better for less but how to do completely different for less too.
There was the central government comms person sharing in her session how they coped when their team was cut by two thirds almost overnight.
There was the local government officer talking about how comms people should be letting go of the reins and allowing frontline staff to use social media to tell their day-to-day story.
I’m biased, but people like Morgan Bowers, Walsall Council’s tweeting countryside ranger should be revered and held up as an example to every organisation. You can connect with people with a realtime picture of a newt. Morgan does.
There was the heated debate over the future of the press release. Some thought they had just as important a role as ever. Me? I’m not so sure. Not when you see what things like Torfaen Council’s excellent singing Elvis gritter YouTube can achieve with its 300,000 views. That’s just brilliant.
There was the local government press officer who button holed me with the words: “I just didn’t know comms people could help democracy” or the central government comms person almost drunk with the ideas and possibilities they’d breathed in the asking anyone who would listen how things like commscamp could be repeated.
But the simple answer is it can. With enthusiasm, some volunteers and a smidge of sponsorship you can run your own and it was heartening to hear how others were planning their own.
The fact that it was planned by three people – two local government people myself and Darren Caveney – along with the Cabinet Office’s brilliant dynamo Ann Kempster really shows the power of a good idea, drive and some free social media platforms. The helpers who helped on the day showed that too.
The real value of unconferences is not just the lessons learned on the day and there are plenty. But it’s the connections made and the experiences shared that will still be paying back in 12 months time.
There’s no question that local government and central government have got so much in common and can learn from one another. Fire and rescue people too. And NHS. And the voluntary sector. We need to work with each other more because we face the same problems.
But the golden thread that ran through everything was a determination to do things better by sharing ideas. That, people, is just a bit exciting.
A version of this appeared on The Guardian.
Okay, so here’s three things that may just help you fall off your seat a little bit. Or at least raise an eyebrow.
Boom! Email can be a bit sexy. Not shiny hipster Apple sexy but in an effective way of communicating with people kind of a way.
Boom! I’m seeing one of the key roles of public sector communications is to point people at more efficient ways of contacting them that’s going to make them happier and save the organisation a stack of money.
Boom! Somebody somewhere in a restaurant had a service so very bad they spelt out their complaint in mustard and ketchup.
Here’s 20 things I learned from the excellent Govdelivery Delivering Real Value to the Public Through Effective Use of Digital Communications 2012 event at the National Audit Office.
1. Bad customer service can be repaid in ketchup
Gerald Power from Trapeze used this rather fabulous slide that told a rather splendid story. Person or persons go into restaurant with wipe-clean tables. Nobody comes and talks to them for half an hour. They spell this out in condiments, take a picture, post it to the web and leave. It’s a perfect tomato-based illustration of where we are with customer service in the social web.
If people just ain’t happy they’ll tell their friends. In creative ways that will go viral.
2. Email is…. sexy?
Actually, bad email is always bad news. The sort that clogs the inbox. The cc to far. But cutting through the rubbish, email does have results as a comms channel. Clearly, govdelivery are keen to stress their product which helps government deliver opt-in targeted emails on request on a whole bunch of subjects. But actually, there’s some pretty good results. Thinking it through, wouldn’t mind opting in as a parent for child-friendly events in the borough where I live. Or winter school closure updates.
3. Comms is essential
As one speaker said, the role of comms in delivering the changes needed in local government is central, fundamental and essential. That made me think a little.
Research by accountants PWC has worked out the cost of local government contact by residents to resolve a problem. For face-to-face it’s £10.53, for telephone it is £3.39, while post costs £12.10 and online just 8p.
One of the roles of comms teams is to help point people at the channel that’s most effective to help save money.
So point people at more efficient ways of talking to the council and you’ll earn your worth as a comms team. That’s just a bit important.
Here’s some other things from the event:
4. There are 650 UK gov services (bar the NHS) costing up to £9bn a year but 300 have no digital presence at all.
5. The new gov.uk domain has saved £36m savings pa by moving from directgov and businesslink.
6. There’s a government target to save up to £421m from #localgov by digitisation.
7. The UK gov could save up to £1.7bn by digitising more.
8. Investment in comms is critical for local government.
9. There’s no need for fancy emails. Simple, to the point and effective for MHRA audience.
10. The digital by default line for UK government isn’t just coming from digital people. It’s coming from the heart of civil service too.
11. There’s no universal best time for an email as each campaign is different.
12. Don’t automate social content. Re-shape it.
13. Only way to realise cashable benefits from digital is headcount reduction and estate rationalisation.
14. A quarter of UK adults and half of all teenagers with smartphones and 77 per cent have broadband.
16. Look to put #digital in BIG areas. Not little. Digital wedding bookings will save pence. Go to where you spend most cash.
17. LGA estmates £67.8m spent by #localgov on print public notices.
18. Public notices are an anachronism in a digital age.
19. 76 per cent of #localgov in an LGIU survey want to publish public notices online only while just 4 per cent want print.
20. There’s a debate about public notices being a subsidy to the print media. There a report.
Creative commons credit:
Bike: Kamshots http://www.flickr.com/photos/kamshots/193501258/sizes/o/
As beautiful illicit guilty pleasures go watching BBC2′s The Thick Of It is not exactly an out-of-control gambling habit.
A satirical fly-on-the-wall Yes Minister for the 21st Century Civil Servants and politicians scheme, plot and manipulate obsessed by the whims of public opinion.
Chief amongst them is the figure of Malcolm Tucker. Like ‘Iago with a blackberry’ as The Spectator calls him in the programme itself, he is the government’s director of communications whose Machiavellian command of the dark arts of spin is direct drawn from the underworld. Nothing is too low.
“Congratulations on your first confirmed kill,” he chillingly writes on a card to a junior who ill in hospital goes along with his plot to unseat the Leader of the Opposition. Out of the box the card comes from drifts a helium baloon with a picture of the deposed Leader sellotaped to it. A perfect blend of malice and slapstick.
Watching the programme is also a secret vice of comms people to talk of the programme illicitly in hushed tones.
A few years ago the subject of The Thick Of It came up in a conversation I had with someone who had worked at the heart of government in the Civil Service. “On a good day it was nothing like it,” the individual said. “On a bad day it was actually a toned down documentary.”
Yet, part of me thinks people will look back in years to come and find that Malcolm Tucker is a bygone relic. Obsessed with newspaper headlines and able to cajole the Priesthood of journalists with bribes and threats.
Or maybe the government comms people of the future will be just as frenetic and just as twitchy about public opinion. It’s just that it’ll be the bloggers and the digital journalists they’ll be obsessed about.
The fourth series ended with Tucker disgraced, chased by a press pack from a police station after handing himself in to be arrested after he perjured himself at a public enquiry.
And Malcolm Tucker to use a very Malcom Tucker word is ‘is damaging’.
Because he forms people’s warped idea of what a public sector comms person looks like. Which is why he needs to be brought down from grace. It’s why he needs to die. Under a bus. Outside Parliament. With a single bunch of flowers from his ma in Scotland. Leaving a stack of cracking YouTube clips as his legacy.
Comms, like journalism, is a broad church and across it finds all sorts of characters and practices. Yet there is nothing I find in what he does remotely similar to what I do working in an environment that encourages open access to social media and open data. Central government people may disagree.
But as Alastair Campbell, the man who did most to create the late 20th century idea of a spin doctor, said recently the landscape has changed: “You can’t dominate the news agenda now. The agenda is more chaotic but that’s a good thing.”
As a platform used by almost 900 million people the question is not ‘how’ government and local government uses it but ‘if.’ There are some cracking examples of how to use Facebook outnumbered by scores of absolute stinkers.
As part of a brilliant session at the rather wonderful Comms2point0 and Public Sector Forum event in Birmingham we looked at how the introduction of timeline Facebook pages would impact.
As the session wore on it looked pretty fundamental. Think timeline is just the chance to stick a big letterbox picture on top of your page? Think again.
Here’s some collected learning gathered at the event and some extra.
Thinking about it afterwards, I can’t help but think that what’s needed for an effective Facebook page – timeline or not – is:
- Good content to connect to people.
- Shouting about it online.
- Shouting about it offline (which is actually the most important than shouting online).
The getting started: ‘We need a Facebook page’
It’s almost as common a thing to hear as a comment on the weather. It’s what people want. But ask a simple question: do you really need a Facebook page?
Ask if people will monitor every day and are prepared to respond. If they’re not, don’t bother. If they’ve never used Facebook before don’t start with a page. You’ll fail. Start by creating your own profile and then using it for a month or two to work out how it all works. If you are none of the above you are better off chipping in to the corporate page or someone else’s page.
What does good content look like?
A couple of posts a day or three at most so as not to drown people with noise. Make it engaging. Post pictures. Stage polls. Link to YouTube. Think beyond the ‘I’m linking to the press release.’ Make it fun. Make it timely. Make it informative.
With Facebook timeline, what’s the same…?
Facebook pages are still the platform for using Facebook as local government. You get loads of stats as an admin you won’t if you don’t have a page. With timeline you can still add posts, add pictures, links, video and create polls. You still have to have your own profile in order to create a page and become an admin. It also doesn’t change the frequency of how often to add content. More than two or three times a day and it starts to get a bit noisy and people will switch off and yes, you do need to add text in a way that works on Facebook.
Don’t be stuffy and formal.
But we all know that, don’t we?
Ally Hook’s Coventry page is a good place to look to for ideas. It’s something I’ve blogged about before here.
What’s different with timeline compared to the old pages?
There’s a stack of extra features I’d either not noticed with the old page or have been slipped on with the new timeline approach. Here’s a quick run through of some of them.
When you first navigate to your home page as admin you’ll see the under the dashboard part of the page right at the top. Helpfully, there’s a natty chart which tells you the reach of the page and how many are talking about it. In other words, how many have posted a comment or liked.
You can have a cover pic
It’s the letterbox shaped image that’s right on top of the page. Facebook are keen for this to be not predominantly text so a nice shot of your borough, city, parish or county will do just fine. Or if its a service maybe it’s a shot of them doing something. But change it every now and then.
For me, this is where good links with Flickr members somes in handy. With their permission use a shot and link back to their page.
Dawn O’Brien for Wolverhampton Parks has used this rather wonderful shot of one of their parks, for example.
You can still have a profile pic
It’s just not the main emphasis of the page anymore. But try and keep it interesting. Use Ally Hook from Coventry City Council’s time honoured tack of not using a logo. They’re not terribly social things are logos.
There’s a funny info bar just under the cover pic
It’s a handy place to see how you are doing with likes as well as a place to search for pictures. That’s a bit tidier.
You can create and add content to a historic timeline
One person at the Birmingham event pointed to Manchester United‘s Facebook page as a trailblazing way to use a historic timeline. They were formed a long time ago and this particular bit of functionality means you can add old, historic content from years ago. It’s actually really good. Click on 1977 and you can see a shot of two members of the FA Cup winning team. Clearly, as a Stoke City supporter they remain a plastic club with fans who live in Surrey but I can live with this screenshot as it has a picture of Stoke legend Jimmy Greenhoff on.
I was talking through this change to Francesca from Walsall Leather Museum.
All of a sudden her eyes lit up. “Wow,” she said. “We can add old pictures to the timeline.” She’s right. You can. The possibilities for museums and galleries are pretty endless.
Even for a council page you can add historic images that build a bit of pride. You can do this by posting an update and then in the top right hand corner clicking on ‘edit.’
You can select a date that best suits it. Like 1972 for Stoke City winning the League Cup, for example.
What the edit page button can do
You can let people add content to your page whether that’s a post or video.
Many councils, especially during Purdah, are a bit nervous about letting people do this. Especially when they are not monitored around the clock. Allowing it builds an audience but it’s a judgement call. There’s also the moderation block list. That’s not really something I’d noticed before but you can add terms you are not happy with.
I’d use it sparingly and not to stiffle debate.
It’s also probably worth adding the swearing filter.
For a few days there was a setting to pre-approve all content. That’s now disappeared and a good thing too.
This star post thing
On the top right hand of each timeline post is the star icon. Click that and your post gets larger and is seen by everyone who navigates to your page. Obviously choose the best ones for that.
In the top right hand of each timeline post is an edit button. Click that and you’ll see the option to pin. That sends the post to the top and something that will remain at the top until its unpinned. Save that for the really important ones.
Insights are your new best friend
If Facebook have gone to the trouble of providing you with a pile of stats for free the least you can do is use them. Let people know. Sing from the rooftops. Include them in reports. Tell people what you are doing. Don’t think that everyone will notice.
It’s something I’ve blogged about before but needs repeating. You can find out how to do it here. Your page is a very small allotment in a country the size of France. Use the principle of go to where the audience is so add and comment on larger pages.
Facebook adverts From the Birmingham session there are few cases of big numbers coming from ads. However, Shropshire Council have used it for specific job ads with some results. A blend of shouting offline and good content to interest if people do drop by would seem to be the answer to building useful Facebook numbers.
A successful Facebook page makes lots and lots of noise offline
It’s amazing how it’s easy to fall into the trap it is of only thinking Facebook to shout about your page. Actually, that’s one part of it. Look at how others do it.
1. Put your a link on the bottom of emails. Tens of thousands of emails get sent every week. They’re mini billboards.
2. Tell people about your page via the corporate franking machine. Tens of thousands of items of post go out every week. They’re mini billboards too.
3. Put your Facebook page on any print you produce. Leaflets, flyers and guides.
4. Put posters up at venues with QR codes linking straight to the page. I’m not convinced QR codes are mainstream but I am convinced its worth a try.
5. Tell your staff about a page – and open up your social media policy to allow them to look. As Helen Reynolds suggests here and Darren Caveney here.
6. Don’t stop shouting about your Facebook page face-to-face. If people enjoy a visit to a museum tell them they can keep up on Facebook.
7. Use your school children. Encourage schools to send something home to tell their parents about the Facebook page.
8. Create a special event for Facebook people. For events and workshops create something special only for the very special people who will like your very special page. Like a craft table at a family event. Maybe use eventbrite to manage tickets.
9. Stage on offline competition. Get people to enter via Facebook. That’s just what Pepsi are doing with a ring pull competition. Send a text (25p) or add to the Pepsi Facebook page after you like it (FREE.)